Ones and Zeros: A Reflection on Spike Jonze’s HER

Ones and Zeros: A Reflection on Spike Jonze’s HER February 10, 2014

Theodore Twombly is only human, and that’s a problem. If Mary Shelley has taught us anything, it’s that mortals should not mess around with creating life artificially; but that is essentially what the protagonist of Her does, without much more than a cursory glance through the instruction manual. His creation is Samantha, an artificial-intelligence “OS” fashioned in imago Theo (“How would you describe your relationship with your mother?” his computer asks him while installing Samantha’s program) and designed to evolve from there. Theo and his creation then proceed to fall in love with each other, which even the mad doctor Frankenstein would have considered a bridge too far.

The resulting relationship is funny, touching, and alien, and the film’s ability to strike each of these notes (occasionally all at the same time) borders on the magical. Writer/director Spike Jonze is making a love story, after all, not a Luddite thriller or sci-fi dystopia. He seems to understand instinctively that the premise of a man dating his smartphone is inherently strange and requires very little extra emphasis, and this frees him to make Theodore and Samantha’s romance utterly convincing and genuinely sweet. It works, thanks largely to the remarkable performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. Phoenix in particular is quite moving; he may be wearing facial hair that’s straight out of a 1985 issue of Sensitive-Mustaches Quarterly, but to watch his face in each scene is to watch an emotional bruise, first as it darkens and then as it heals. His character is struggling to mend himself after a wrenching divorce, and Phoenix makes sure the audience feels every heart-pang that Theodore does.

So maybe the Frankenstein analogy doesn’t fit. Theodore is more of a Pygmalion, the mythical Greek sculptor who fell hopelessly in love with a statue he made of his ideal woman. In the original myth, Aphrodite takes pity on the poor heartsick dope and brings the statue, named Galatea, to life. Galatea marries Pygmalion, and they live happily ever after. No muss, no fuss—instant love.

This myth can be read as a distillation of a common male fantasy. A woman, who has literally been created to be the perfect mate, gratefully devotes herself to the man who has awakened her. She cures his loneliness and meets all his needs. And that’s how Theodore and Samantha start out. According to Theodore’s ex-wife, he has always wanted a companion who exudes joy about life without requiring him to confront life’s messy sorrows and discomforts, and Samantha is that companion. Whether she’s organizing his email inbox or salving his emotional wounds, she is Theodore’s Galatea, sculpted not from marble but from ones and zeros. Unlike the Pygmalion myth, though, Her makes Samantha’s awakening the beginning, not the end, of the story.

With his iGirlfriend growing and evolving, Theodore happily tells his friends about her burgeoning autonomy: “She’s so many things. She’s her own person.” But as their love develops, eventually running up against the conundrum of true intimacy sans incarnation, Theodore begins to find Samantha’s autonomy distressing. Spike Jonze’s futuristic society is awash in convenient technology (a fact that the director slyly hints at in shots of crowds of people looking like mental patients as they jabber at their mobile computers), and in such an environment Theodore can’t help but feel entitled to his OS’s affections. He’s quick to pay lip service to how Samantha isn’t merely an E-Z Relationship Tool to him, but he also doesn’t want her to become so independent that she leaves him behind. “Either you’re mine or you’re not mine,” he says to Samantha in a particularly revealing moment. (Even the film’s title, with its objective-case pronoun, is suggestive of Theodore’s attitude. One wonders how a film titled She might be different.)

Theodore’s angst isn’t entirely neurotic. If the story of humanity has taught us anything, it’s that beings with free will choose not to love their Creator all the time. And that’s the God of the universe we’re talking about there. Theo does not merit the same unconditional devotion that God does, nor are his personal resources adequate to deal with the possibility of his creation not loving him back.

It’s impossible to watch him stumble into this situation and not feel for him at some level. Whatever Theodore’s shortcomings are, the film asserts that his love for Samantha is real; we can’t lightly dismiss it or the pain that follows. The romanticism of Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography—all soft light and gentle primary colors—draws us further into Theodore’s emotional state. Regardless of the sci-fi strangeness of his relationship with Samantha, his foibles and his heartache are all too familiar. More than a few viewers will see echoes of themselves in him.

How often, in the name of love, do we try to re-create other people in our own image, expecting them to worship us once we’re finished? How often do we panic, or withdraw, or get angry, when they begin to color outside our lines? Love is a joyful mystery, but it quickly shrinks to an all-too-explicable simulacrum of itself when selfishness, desperation, and insecurity enter in. Jonze understands this. In one of the most lyrical scenes in the film, Theodore stops during his hike through a forest to contemplate a tree stump: sad, bare, half-buried in snow. Jonze frames him and the stump in a wide shot. The difference between them is not as great as one might assume.

It won’t surprise many viewers to learn that Theodore/Samantha don’t live happily ever after, at least not for conventional definitions of “live,” “happily,” and “ever after.” It’s inevitable, really. Theodore is only human, while Samantha is simultaneously more and less than that. Love, for Theodore and the rest of us on earth, will continue to be an ungainly enterprise, sewn together out of strange neuroses and lurching feelings and inconstant flesh. But we practice, and we get better at it. Sometimes being “only” human is a pretty fine thing to be.

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